Vanilla. To some it is the most basic flavor available, in need of spicing up with the help of chocolate, strawberry, or caramel. To others, it is perfect on its own.
To Long Island attorney Spencer Sheehan, “vanilla” means dollar signs. The attorney, from Great Neck, New York, told local outlet Newsday that he had filed 27 lawsuits just this year on behalf of consumers who have been mislead about vanilla flavoring. Sheehan has fired the lawsuits, according to Newsday, against companies that produce “yogurt, cookies, oatmeal, almond milk, soy milk, cream soda and ice cream labeled as ‘vanilla.’”
Sheehan is seeking $5 million in damages in each of the lawsuits he has filed. The lawsuits have been filed against numerous companies, including Turkey Hill LP, Danone North America LLC, and Voortman Cookies Limited.
Sheehan’s issue with the companies is how they label their vanilla-flavored products, since most don’t use actual vanilla beans.
“A lot of these companies are aware that I’m correct,” Sheehan told Newsday in late October. “If we’re saying vanilla ice cream, we’re saying the flavor comes from vanilla, which is an integral part of the ice cream. The only flavoring in the product should be vanilla from vanilla beans.”
Perhaps Sheehan will next take the companies to task for using the words “ice cream” when the product is actually a “frozen dairy dessert.” Distinctions like this come from the Food and Drug Administration, which regulates how companies can describe their products. (In some cases, the regulations aren’t clear enough, as can be plainly seen on “gluten-free” products that can send people with real gluten allergies to the hospital.)
Many “vanilla” flavored products aren’t made exclusively with vanilla beans, Newsday reported, but with a combination of vanilla extract and synthetically produced vanillin, which is much cheaper.
In his lawsuit against Turkey Hill, Sheehan alleges the company misrepresents in its labeling “the percentage of vanilla compared to the overall flavor component.” In his lawsuit against Danone North America, Sheehan claims the company uses the label, “vanilla with other natural flavors” as a way around government regulations. A spokesman for Danone told Newsday that the company is “confident that our vanilla flavor labeling is fully compliant and is in no way deceptive to consumers.”
Sheehan’s lawsuit against Voortman brought up the disconnect between the company’s packaging, which states its vanilla wafers are made with “real vanilla,” and the fact that neither vanilla nor vanillin are listed on the ingredients.
Sheehan told Newsday that no judge has ruled on the class-actions status of any of his lawsuits, adding that many cases like these don’t get that far and are settled out of court.
Some of Sheehan’s previous legal cases involved animal welfare. Sheehan, described by Newsday as “a vegetarian involved with animal rescue groups,” previously helped the “subway vigilante” keep squirrels in his apartment. Bernhard Goetz has been arrested for injuring four African-American teenagers with a pistol in 1984. He claimed they were about to mug him. Goetz was able to keep his squirrels.
In another of Sheehan’s cases, he helped a Florida woman keep her pet alligator, Rambo.